Confused about my sectorality

I have a love/hate relationship with the Law of Excluded Middle. You know, it’s the logical principle that says either ‘A’ or ‘not A’ must be true; there can be no Third Way. It tells you that you can love something or hate something but not both at once. It seems like a useful and elegant principle but somehow it falls short in everyday life. I often have the feeling that most of my life is spent in the Land of Excluded Middle. I have written before about my experience of being a hybrid librarian/information scientist. I am always a bit of a fish out of water, with an unerring knack for finding myself to be an oxymoron. Working in a Research Council institute is one example.
Research Councils (RCs) have “.ac.uk” internet addresses, so we appear to be part of the UK academic community, but we are not part of the Higher Education (HE) community. We do research not teaching. For several years RCs fell under a totally different government department than Universities. This was regrettable because the HE sector, through its agency JISC, started developing all kinds of useful information services in the 1990s and it was often unclear whether Research Council establishments were eligible to use them or not. I found myself always having to ask the question “are we included?”. Happily the answer was usually “yes”, but as a favour rather than by right.
When electronic journals came along the question arose again – what sector are Research Councils in? The answer was important because publishers used different e-journal pricing models for different sectors – commercial, academic or government. We certainly weren’t commercial and saw ourselves more as academic but because we did not have any undergraduates we were generally regarded as government. In a sense that was right as we were funded ultimately by the government, but we were not “government” in the sense of being part of the machinery of government. In practice, as we have no undergraduates, any pricing metric based on student numbers did not work for RCs. Still the overall ethos and activity seemed to fit in more easily with an academic model.
More recently the question of whether we are part of government has had other effects. Stories in the press about expenses scandals and ‘fat cat civil servants’ meant a tightening up on expenses procedures (i.e more paperwork) across government. Losses of government laptops and storage media led to massive tightening of rules on data security and these have extended from the Cabinet Office across all Whitehall departments and beyond, including Research Councils and their institutes. Perhaps the rules are just good IT management, but when it means that laboratory data have to be treated with the same level of confidentiality as personal data it does raise some eyebrows.
The run-up to the recent general election brought another edict from central government, when the rules of pre-election purdah were extended to all RC establishments. This meant that no public announcements about new research findings could be made by RCs or RC institutes until the election was over and a new government formed. Universities were not affected by this edict, as I understand it. Once again RCs seemed to be “the wrong kind of academic”. In an opinion piece in The Independent, reporter Nigel Hawkes raised questions about the required moratorium of announcements from Government. He noted that adding academics to the list of those gagged during an election was a new departure. Actually it had happened before. The Times Higher last year ran a story about some ESRC-funded researchers who had been subject to restrictions in the period leading up to the 2009 European elections.
Nature last month ran an article about Robert Wall, a recently retired US federal scientist. During the final six years of his employment – five under George W. Bush and one under Barack Obama – he “noticed increasing sensitivity and caution at his agency towards cloning and animal transgenics”. The article says “it is not clear whether such incidents reflect high-level political interference or the hand of middle managers or press officers, who alter or block communication because they are wary of stirring up controversy”. In Canada too the question of what scientists can and can’t say to journalists has become a controversial question.
Of course the Purdah rules in the UK are there to serve a purpose – to prevent public servants affecting the outcome of the democratic process. It would be interesting to see more debate on the extent to which some kinds of academic research should be affected by rules that are designed for government departments.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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3 Responses to Confused about my sectorality

  1. Mike Fowler says:

    Ahhh, so the UKRC’s are a tautology. I always knew there was something odd about them! But, as the Steve Miller Band suggested to me, I just took the money and ran.

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    Do you get Maunday Thursday afternoon off? Or are you too senior for that?
    I did my PhD in a BBSRC institute, so I recognise hte problems. At least as a student, I was registered at the UEA so there weren’t any problem (not even with hacked emails).
    I’m now in an institute jointly run by the local museum and the university, so we get the worst of both worlds with added dollops of Germanic bureaucracy. But at least I get free entry to the zoo, museum and botanical gardens.

  3. Frank Norman says:

     Bob -yes, we do plus an extra Friday off before the Spring Bank Holiday. I still feel a bit guilty about taking the Maundy Thursday afternoon off and usually end up working most of it. 
    Mixed-up governance can be a nightmare. Medical schools are the prime exemplar with University and NHS people all mixed up, and I think they still have separate networks for NHS and HE.  There used to be one MRC Unit that was a mixture of MRC, University, NHS and Pfizer.  Sorting out who could access was tricky. 
    Mike – I don’t think UKRC institutes are a tautology, we’re just a bit too small to be a sector in our own right.  The Max Planck network of institutes, for example, is that much bigger.

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